“They took my son without any explanation, we do not know what to do,” Rehana Bibi, a resident of Assam told The Citizen. With Assam government’s “crackdown” on child marriage more than 3000 people have been arrested so far.

People are lodged in temporary jails, which led to protests by women who were seen breaking down averring that their husbands are the sole breadwinners of their families.

On February 3, the Assam Police launched state-wide crackdown on child marriage. Over 2,000 people, including Hindu and Muslim priests who officiated these weddings, were arrested within the first two days.

The arrests are being carried out on the basis of 4,135 FIRs registered across the state. The Assam government has formed a cabinet sub-committee on the rehabilitation of "victims" of child marriage, and Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s cabinet colleagues Ranoj Pegu, Keshab Mahanta and Ajanta Neog have been named as members of the panel.

Rehana Bibi’s son was among those who were arrested. Rehana said that her son Adil (name changed on request) was applying to colleges to continue his studies. “He got married in January this year. But what I don’t understand is why my son was picked up. What did he do?” she asks.

In a circular that was passed by the Chief Minister Office, the state cabinet constituted a Cabinet Sub-Committee to finalise a Rehabilitation Policy within 15 days for victims of child marriage. The decision was taken during the state cabinet meeting held in Guwahati.

On February 6, CM Himanta Biswa Sarma said that the drive against child marriage is for public health and public welfare as teenage pregnancy ratio in Assam is quite alarming at 16.8 percent. “We're resolved to continue this drive until we fulfil our objective. I urge the people to cooperate with us in controlling this harmful trend," he said.

However, Rehana said taking away the men is not the solution. “My son’s wife is dependent on him. What is going to happen to her now? They were just recently married,” she added,

As the arrests started taking place, videos of women begging authorities to not take away their husbands started emerging.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2021, 32% of women in Assam were married before the legal age of 18.

However, many legal and social experts have asserted that mere law enforcement cannot be the solution while some arguing that at least the law is being discussed and may prove to be a deterrent.

Speaking to The Citizen, Tania, an Assam-based lawyer said that this is not the solution to stop an issue which is social in nature rather than individual.

“Legally I do not see this as an efficient way to stop child marriage. Child marriage is not an individual issue but a social issue. So, fixing individual liability will not solve the problem. This is the issue with the structure,” she said.

Tania added that there are proper structures made to tackle such situations, which were also not roped in before the decision was made.

“If child marriage is such a rampant issue, then it is the liability of the whole structure. Government bodies should also be sent a show cause and be questioned. Without doing any of that a circular was passed,” she added.

For those who have been arrested Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 [POCSO] and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 [POCM] have been slapped. The POCSO Act defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years.

According to Anumeha Mishra, Assistant Professor at Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, this is in “consonance with the Indian Majority Act, 1875 as well as the definition of child under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. Sections 3 and 5 of this Act penalise sexual intercourse with a child.”

According to this Act, a child does not have sexual autonomy.

Thus, under the POCSO, the spouse of a person below the age of 18 can be penalised. According to POCM, solemnisation of marriage of a girl below the age of 18 years and of a boy below the age of 21 years is prohibited. Currently, there is a proposal to increase the age of marriage of girls to 21 years.

However, many of the boys who have been arrested by the Assam Police are below 21, including Rehana’s son. At the moment, there is a panic like situation on the ground, with families running from lawyers to courts.

“The government needs to take some proper steps to tackle the situation,” Tania added.

She added that while there are bail procedures under both POCSO and POCM, the procedure is very costly. “Even if people get bail in this situation, they are going to be stuck inside because of the economic situation of these people and the lack of awareness,” Tania added.

Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) chairperson Sunita Changkakoti claimed that after the “strong message sent out by the state government, people are now discussing the law about which many were unaware that resulted in child marriages".

The police may not have responded to the issue earlier but they alone cannot be blamed as even the health department did not report teenage pregnancies while teachers did not report whether girls dropping out of schools had got married, she added.

The Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation has demanded that the Assam government provide a monthly assistance of Rs 2,000 to every woman whose husband has been arrested till he gets bail.

Meanwhile, both the opposition and civil society have criticised the government’s way of handling the situation and demanded they compensate and find ways to help the women who now are stranded with small children in their arms.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), which has been campaigning against the practice of child marriage still continuing in the country in spite of there being laws against it.

“However, we are appalled to find that the BJP Government in Assam which has taken no steps during its tenure to prevent under-age marriage according to the Child Marriage Prohibition Act has suddenly launched a crusade in some districts picking out husbands who have allegedly married under-age girls.

“They are being put indiscriminately under arrest; sometimes men who have been married for several years are being dragged off to the police station in handcuffs and detained there leaving the wives and the children of these marriages in a completely helpless state,” AIDWA said, demanding the withdrawal of the campaign by the government.

Meanwhile, due to fear of arrests, women have been dying by suicide. In a recent case, a woman who was married to a man from South Salmara-Mankachar district just three months ago died by suicide.

The woman has been identified as a resident of Kamar Pada village falling in the jurisdiction of South Salmara police station.

This is the second incident of a woman taking her own life after the Assam government started taking stringent action against child marriages in the state.

In another case, a 23-year-old woman in Golakgank, whose husband and father were arrested in a child marriage case in Dhubri district, arrived at a police station and threatened to commit suicide if they were not released. The woman fainted when she saw the police take her husband and father to court.

Reports that pregnant women are also refusing to go to hospitals due to the fear of the crackdown have also emerged after a 16-year-old died on her way to the hospital. “It is a panicky situation where everyone is confused as to what should be done next,” Tania said.

The Opposition has slammed Sarma’s government for its action.

“This innocent girl’s death is at the hands of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma whose foolish step has led to pregnant teenagers avoiding hospitals for childbirth. The infant is without a mother and the father is in jail,” Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi said.